The Dark Side of Freemium

I'm in the habit of playing a lot of casual games, just to get a taste for them. I particularly try to play the top-rated games at Kongregate or the iOS App Store every now and again. As a game designer, it behooves me to know the market, right?

Which brings me to... Fashion Story.

This game, man. This game. I hated it. And not for the feminist reasons you might assume! I hated it because it left me feeling completely exploited. As a player, this is not a feeling I enjoy.

Let me explain.

Fashion Story is at heart a resource management game. You are running a boutique. You must purchase stock for your store, wait for it to arrive, and then put it on the sales floor, aiming to keep a steady cash flow going. As is common in such games, you can also expand your store so that you can keep more merchandise on the floor at once, and you can decorate with different kinds of flooring, wall colors, doors, display tables, and so on.

It has a time-based element similar to Farmville: When you order merchandise, it will take a set period of time to arrive -- how long depends on what the item is. But if you don't put your inventory out for sale, it will eventually "expire." Your money will be lost forever! And as you level up, you unlock different fashion lines to sell in your store.

Fashion Story does also have a social element... sort of. You can visit other people's stores and "like" their merchandise. But this doesn't have the same fuzzy feeling or connotation of going to a neighbor's farm and helping them get a better harvest; it's just a straight reward of money and experience points. You can also, in theory, leave notes for other store owners, but I never saw this part of the game in action; it's a Facebook integration. It's not a great element, but meh, it isn't so bad.

So why did I hate this game? Well! Let me tell you all about it!

First were the incredibly intrusive ads. Fashion Story allows you to buy game coins and gems (more on that in a minute). That's great! Glad to know!

But the game was over-persistent in pushing that, and in popping up ads to download the developer's mafia game -- once a day I could forgive. I might even forgive once every time a session of the game is opened. But they'd pop up if you so much as put your phone to sleep and then wake it up to go back into the game ten minutes later. So you'd have to dimiss those ads again and again. And performance was... sluggish, at best, so this was a fairly tedious chore (though that could just be the iPhone 3G I'm using.)

And about those gems... gems are a kind of currency you buy with real money. You start with a very small number, but once you spend them, the only way to get more is to pull out your wallet. And gems are very much the currency of the game -- they allow you to selectively unexpire items you left sitting too long, for example. Gems also give you mechanical advantages in, say, letting you buy another inventory slot, so you can order more merchandise at the same time.

Then there's the customization issue. Fashion Story's customization options for decking out your boutique aim for the Farmville ideal, but fall short; instead of creating a selection of highly-desirable and super-adorable options to entice you to part with your real cash, Fashion Story just locks everything down so you can't do any meaningful customization at all without paying up. Not ready to spend real-world moolah? No customization for you!

If Fashion Story were a more functional game out of the gate and provided a pleasant experience in the free version, I'd be really tempted to buy those gems. I paid money for Farmcash. I very often buy full versions of games after trying the Lite version. I'm definitely not opposed to spending money when I'm enjoying something.

And there are the bare bones of a kind of cute resource management game here, honestly. But as it stands, the game is exploitationware: Designed to separate you from your cash, with very little thought given to the actual play experience.

Sure, it's a free game. But it should make you want to spend your money. The funnel to premium content should be an exercise in seduction, not extortion. 

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